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Still Life with Father and Degenerating Motor Neurons

by Meghan Sterling

My father talks to me in my sleep, his words reduced to syllables

split by his heavy tongue, like a red sea cleaving down the middle


at Moses’s feet, a perfect part, the line of scalp a shining light

between waves of hair. My father’s words like the dragging of a boot


in dirt, he does not say wish or need or love or why this and why me,

he mouths it in his gasps for air, he pantomimes, his arms grasping


the metal walker, his body behind moving metal as if caged. My father

doesn’t believe any new stories, like the one about my Grandmother


being stabbed on a rooftop. Instead he wags his striated tongue,

arching his eyebrows like a tv detective. What is happening to his body


isn’t true, either, he won’t believe that he can’t force his body, push his body

back to pliancy, back to the strength he had when he was kayaking


the coast of Alaska, glaciers at the stern, glaciers at the bow, the years

stretched out and yielding their ground like the Yukon, bright as the pink


fireweed singeing the tops of Denali. The water would part at the nose

of his boat as if he were traveling with God. My father only talks to me


when I’ve left, when he calls and I can’t get to the phone in time,

and the ringing cries out from across the sea of air its ragtime melody,

or when I run the bathtub for my daughter and the water parts

around a toy boat overturned beneath the faucet and I know


that my father will never arrive. My father doesn’t converse, he says

sssshhhhh with his filmy lips, he says lies with his bloated tongue.


He sits straight in his chair and greets us with his rigid shoulder bones

and I palm his bald skull, the closest we come to an embrace.

About the Author

Meghan Sterling’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Rust & Moth, The West Review, Colorado Review, Pacifica Literary Review, SWIMM, Sky Island Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, River Heron Review, Rattle and many others, and received 2 pushcart nominations in 2021. She is Associate Poetry Editor of The Maine Review, a Hewnoaks Artist Colony resident in 2019 and 2021, and her debut collection, These Few Seeds, came out in 2021 from Terrapin Books. She and her family live in Portland, Maine. Read her work at

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